NEW YORK -- Venus Williams has seen them come and go, so many of them over the span of her 22-year career. They come with big forehands and even more outlandish dreams and fire in their eyes, a swagger in their steps. They are teenagers, flush with talent and adolescent demands for gratification.
Williams isn't any more ready to yield to them than she was a decade ago. Nineteen-year-old Viktoria Kuzmova learned that Monday in their first-round US Open clash in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Williams is 37 years old. Twenty years ago, she helped inaugurate Ashe, reaching the first women's final played in the venue. On Monday, she celebrated that anniversary with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 win over Kuzmova. Williams then told the fans in the stadium, "It's been a beautiful 20 years. I love this game."
A person would have to love tennis in order to avoid burning out after the kind of career Williams has had. Burn out? Williams began the day as one of eight women with a chance to emerge from this tournament with the WTA's No. 1 ranking. Her chances improved when Johanna Konta lost Monday, whittling the list down to seven.
But Williams, like those other veteran warriors Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, isn't falling for the siren song of ranking. Over time, the residue of experience in these players has been narrowing many goals down to a simple one: Stay healthy, pick your spots and savor every particle of winning.
"I didn't know about the race [for No. 1]," Williams said after the match.
Williams seems to have simplified both her goals (winning) and what she expects out of tennis (joy). It's striking how often she declares her love for the sport, even though the tour must seem like a far lonelier place without the presence of her kid sister, Serena. The sisters played the Australian Open final, after which Serena withdrew for the year while she awaits the birth of her first child.
This is one of the longest periods that Serena has been exiled from the sport while Venus has continued to compete. "I definitely have adjusted at this point," Venus said of Serena's absence. "But it takes time. There's moments when you have very distinct memories of togetherness."
Kuzmova was playing in her first tour-level match, but neither the crowd nor the cavernous dimensions of Ashe seemed to rattle her. She fended off eight break points to hold her first service game, showing off a forehand that sometimes flew like a guided missile, and at other times like a bottle rocket. Her serve is also capable of doing damage to someone other than herself, which is why she was able to overcome a set and a break deficit and push Williams to a third set.
But it was Williams' serve that made the crucial difference. It cost her the second set when her timing vanished, and it won her the final set. She won 92 percent of her first-serve points in the third and 43 percent of her first serves went unreturned.
"I definitely wasn't expecting or planning on dropping sets today," William confessed. "But things happen."
In the seventh game of the first set, Williams hit a poor volley that that left her vulnerable, standing at the net with Kuzmova hit for the passing shot. But the Slovakian got overeager and drove the ball into the net.
Williams turned away, laughing at the way she'd made a hash of the volley, clearly enjoying a moment that could have gone either way. It seemed to confirm something she told reporters in Cincinnati a few weeks ago:
"Right now is just a good time to be playing tennis, a good time to be alive. It's a good time to live your dream, and that's what I'm doing."
And she's not about to allow anyone to spoil the fun.